Minnesota has forgotten its roots when it comes to environmental permitting

This state has never been, and is not today, metro-centric. In fact, most of our big companies originally came to Minnesota to develop our abundant natural resources. Today, many of the office jobs in the high-rises of St. Paul, Minneapolis and Duluth directly relate to the jobs of hardworking men and women who are out in the elements every day bringing resources to market.

It seems to us that our state government, in particular our state agencies, are out of touch with this reality. Case in point are the recent developments related to the Sandpiper pipeline project.

Enbridge has been trying to build this petroleum pipeline from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota to its regional terminal in Superior, Wis. The project is common sense. The oil from the Bakken needs to be moved to market. Building Sandpiper would create thousands of well-paying middle-class construction jobs, bring millions of dollars in much-needed business to rural communities and add millions of tax dollars to rural governments. There is also no disagreement that moving the oil in a pipeline is a safer alternative than moving it via rail cars or trucks.

North Dakota took about a year to study the issue and permit the project, which is a typical timeline for most states. Minnesota is now in year four of permitting with no end in sight. Minnesota state agencies, after intense lobbying by extreme anti-development activists, have recommended delay after delay. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, the permitting authority on the project, has followed the advice of state agencies and anti-development extremists every step of the way.

The result of this uncertainty came home to roost earlier this month. Enbridge announced that it had formed a partnership to purchase a pipeline system that would get the Bakken petroleum to market. One of the pipelines Enbridge will purchase is still under construction, and it runs from North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa to Illinois. This pipeline was permitted in all four states in a year and a half. One thing the pipelines in this system have in common is that none of them travels through Minnesota.

When companies can’t get a reasonable time frame for decisions, they make other plans, since regulatory purgatory creates unacceptable risk for investors. This is the consequence of needless delay and indecision in Minnesota by regulators and state agencies regarding environmental permitting.

Enbridge has not called off the Sandpiper project officially, but there is little doubt that this project is no longer immediately necessary and at minimum will be delayed. Enbridge will not suffer, since the oil will still move to market. Northern Minnesota communities that could have benefited from Sandpiper will do the suffering.

What’s worse, they will watch residents of North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois reap the benefits of Minnesota government inaction.

Pipeline permitting defies common sense in Minnesota today. But the problems aren’t limited to this industry. Ask a farmer, a logger or a miner how things are going when it comes to dealing with state agencies and regulators regarding environmental permitting issues in Minnesota. You will likely hear the same frustrations and see a lot of heads shaking.

One of the first things Gov. Mark Dayton did when he took office in 2011 was sign an executive order to streamline decisions on environmental permits. The rhetoric clearly has not been matched by action. Dayton has said publicly that he supports Sandpiper and other large natural resource projects. He might want to reiterate this support to the employees in his administration and the state agencies who report directly to him.

Permitting infrastructure projects that meet environmental standards shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and this commentary is not meant to spark partisan bickering. It is meant to be a wake-up call, a reminder of the importance of natural-resource-based industries and the thousands of good-middle class jobs, both blue- and white-collar, that are supported by development.

Ultimately, it is a call for common sense to return to our permitting system and for extremism to be rooted out. We hope the leaders of our state are listening.


Jason George, of Apple Valley, is special projects director for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49. Matthew Gordon, of Mahnomen, Minn., is vice president of Gordon Construction. Joan Lee, of McIntosh, Minn., is a Polk County commissioner.